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“I wonder what she’s thinking…” How many times have you thought that before or after talking with one of your team members? Wouldn’t it be great if you really knew?

Mind-reading is a leadership superpower most of us would like to have. We’d all love to know what’s going on inside someone’s head. Through conversation, observation and interaction, you can get some clues. But sometimes you can end up pretty far off, too.

That lack of clarity makes your job as a leader even harder. You’re surprised when someone reacts negatively to your words or misinterprets your actions. You’re frustrated when your team doesn’t seem inspired by the goals you set and doesn’t get on board. Sometimes you leave a conversation where plenty was said, but little seems to have been understood.

Why it helps to know what others are thinking

Your ability to connect with and understand others is critically important to your leadership effectiveness. You have many things you want and need to share with those you lead including vision, values, goals and performance expectations, among countless other business-related topics.

Likewise, you want to understand what your team is thinking. You’d like to know:

  • What motivates each person?
  • What are their fears and triggers?
  • What obstacles are holding them back?
  • How do they make choices?
  • Why are they behaving in certain ways?
  • What do they really think about you and the organization?

Armed with this kind of insight, you can lead far more powerfully because you can say and do the things that will resonate most with your team.

With advanced neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI (think MRI that measures blood flow in the brain), we’re learning many new things about how and why the brain directs our thinking, behavior, emotional response and decision-making. More and more, it is becoming possible for scientists to identify thoughts and feelings by watching different parts of the brain light up on a computer screen.

Absent an fMRI in your office, how can you become more adept at knowing what makes someone tick?

It’s not as hard as you might imagine. There are some powerful leadership tools and techniques you can employ to become a more capable mind-reader – and, in turn, a far better leader.

I’ve got three to share with you today.


1. Create safety in conversations

It’s human nature to protect ourselves. Whether it’s a saber-tooth tiger jumping out of the bushes or someone who we think is out to get us, threats of all kinds cause us to react defensively. This fight/flight/freeze instinct is an automatic response controlled by our limbic system that triggers a physical reaction to threats — our heart races, our breathing gets shallow, and our muscles tighten.

We also have an emotional reaction to threats, especially social threats such as feeling left out or losing our sense of control. When we are triggered we can become angry, fearful or simply go silent.

You can help to minimize someone’s defensive responses by creating a sense of safety when you are with them. This is particularly important in weighty conversations, where the goal is to have honest, forthright and productive dialogue.

In the book “Crucial Conversations” by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler, the authors explain the importance of first creating a sense of safety between two individuals before having a significant conversation. You can accomplish this by establishing a common purpose to focus on and demonstrating mutual respect. In so doing, you enable others to feel less threatened and more willing to fully engage in difficult but meaningful discussion.

What’s the result? When people feel safe, they can say anything. The more others share with you, the more you can discover what they are thinking. And vice versa. Which paves the way for smoother resolution of conflicts and greater alignment around common goals.

2. Discover what triggers them

All of us have motives for the decisions we make and the actions we take. The problem is, we often don’t openly share what drives us. This creates a sense of confusion and challenge for leaders who are trying to navigate interactions with many different types of people in the workplace.

Figuring out what motivates others is very useful. This knowledge enables you to engage them more effectively and see with greater accuracy how situations should and could unfold.

Interestingly, our motivations are often the flip side of something that challenges us – a trigger that causes us to react negatively.

In his book, “Your Brain at Work,” David Rock outlines five social triggers research has identified as the most common reasons people get upset:

  • Status – feeling less than or better than others
  • Certainty – ability to predict outcomes
  • Autonomy – sense of control
  • Relatedness – in-group or out-of-group
  • Fairness – perception of fair exchange

Think about the individuals on your team. What are their likely triggers? How have they responded in the past to different situations? Then think through what you can do to mitigate a negative response.

For example, imagine you have to tell someone their budget’s been cut. If certainty is important to them, you should provide information about other resources they can turn to that would help create a greater sense of certainty. If autonomy is important to them, give them some time and space to think through different options for how they can overcome the challenge, and give them some authority to move forward in a new way.

By thinking through what triggers others, you can better anticipate what their thoughts and feelings will be and navigate your interactions with them.


3. Ask them

This one seems so simple, but we often don’t ask what other people are thinking because we are unwilling to take the time to do so. Or we assume we already know.

Stop guessing what someone wants, and ask them.

This is especially important when trying to make decisions about how best to develop your team members and prepare them to take on more. Ask yourself: “Do I really know what this person’s career goals are? Do I have a clear sense of their strengths and weaknesses, and know where they’d like to improve?”

You can learn what others are thinking by asking prompting questions that encourage them to share their ideas with you. Set aside time in your one-on-one meetings to ask questions like: “How do you feel you are progressing toward your career goals?” Or “What are some areas you’d like to get stronger in if given the chance?”

By asking – and actively listening – you can gain a clear understanding of what your team members want and need. You can determine who might be best suited to take on a new responsibility and how to empower them to own it. When you know what their goals are, you can give someone a stretch assignment that will allow them to grow in an area they would like to develop.

By asking, you can learn what they’re thinking and be in a better position to meet their needs and with just the right fit at the right time.
 

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